Saturday, August 21, 2010

Russian Textbook World

I've been studying Russian for my job. I recently finished the textbooks for the Defense Language Institute basic course and am now using a friend's old intermediate-level textbooks. All of the books that I've been using were published back in the days of the Soviet Union. It's funny to see old city names like Leningrad and Stalingrad in these books. My Russian textbooks also paint an interesting picture of life in the former USSR.

It seems like all of the Russian language textbook authors got together to create what I call "Russian Textbook World" or RTW. RTW is supposed to represent life in the Soviet Union. Lessons are written from the viewpoint of a Soviet university student. The student lives with his parents, older sister, and younger brother in Moscow. The father is either a pilot, engineer in a factory, doctor, or school director. Mom is a nurse or a teacher. I guess all those statistics about most of the USSR's doctors being women were wrong because RTW women are never doctors. The older sister works in a store or a kindergarten. The younger brother is still in elementary or high school and doesn't have a job yet. The university student, usually male, is studying engineering, chemistry, physics, or medicine. He befriends an American student who's also studying at the university. Our RTW college student likes to show his American friend the sights of Moscow and explain its history. The KGB never hears about our Soviet student socializing with a foreigner and then arresting him, which is what would have happened in the real USSR. That's because there is no KGB in RTW. Grandma and Grandpa are retired and live in a village in another part of Russia.

The typical Soviet family in RTW doesn't have a car. Nobody uses the metro, despite the fact that Moscow has an excellent subway system. Everyone goes to work or school on the bus, the tram, or on foot. If every man is a pilot, engineer, doctor, or school director, I wonder who drives the buses and trams in RTW. Either cycling in Moscow is for the elite, or our family doesn't own any bicycles because nobody in RTW rides a bicycle to work or school.

Don't believe what the Western press says about food shortages or long lines in the grocery stores in the USSR. There are none in RTW. Our typical Moscow family eats very well and never has to wait in line for food. Every day they eat: oatmeal, pancakes, sandwiches, ham, sausage, other meat, eggs, and even some fish. There don't seem to be many fruits and veggies in the RTW diet except for carrots, mushrooms, potatoes, cucumbers, and onions. RTW families drink milk, tea, wine, and water. Dad never goes out and gets drunk pounding shots of vodka with his buddies. In Russian vodka is vodka and water is voda, which is probably why every man that I've met from the former USSR drinks vodka like it's water. RTW really is an alternate universe!

Our RTW family lives in an apartment in a multi-story building. The apartment is large enough for the family and has a living room, hallway, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, study room, and bedrooms. All of the modern conveniences are in the apartment: electricity, gas, telephone, hot water, and even a shower. There are good views from the windows. Every family in RTW has a television and radio, though not all have VCRs. Every RTW family has a friend who just moved to a brand new apartment (also in a multi-story building) who will be having a housewarming party soon. The friend with the new apartment recently bought furniture.

There are various forms of entertainment in RTW. When not going to the theater, a movie, a concert, or a football/soccer game at the local stadium (where Spartak Moscow only plays Dynamo Moscow), the typical RTW family watches TV, listens to radio programs, or goes for a walk in the park. Students often go to the local club with their friends. Sometimes a friend will come to visit. The post office is evidently the place to be in RTW. Whole lessons in Russian language textbooks are all about going to the post office. At the post office in RTW, you don't just mail a letter or package or buy stamps. You can also send telegrams, pick up packages, and make long distance phone calls. Telegrams appear to be the main medium of communication in RTW. Going to the doctor is another pastime. People in RTW get enough coughs, colds, sore throats, fevers, and headaches to keep their doctors very busy.

When people go on vacation in RTW, they take the train to the Black Sea, the Caucausus, the Crimea, or the Baltic. There are evidently no other vacation destinations in RTW. Even though those places must be very crowded with everyone in the USSR spending their summer vacations there, hordes of tourists are never mentioned. These places are always calm and peaceful. Sometimes the kids will visit Grandma and Grandpa in their village for the summer and spend their days hiking in the woods gathering mushrooms and berries.

Nothing bad ever happens in RTW. In my Defense Language Institute books, there were sections in each lesson with newspaper article excerpts. Most of them were about some sort of disaster: car crashes, plane crashes, train crashes and derailments, fires, floods, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. The interesting thing is that all of these disasters happened outside the USSR. When there were articles about the USSR, they were usually about Aeroflot's new flights to East Berlin, Sofia, and Prague, a new modern hotel for businessmen in Leningrad (with electricity!), special cruises on Russia's rivers, or how a local tractor factory increased its production.

Would I like to live in RTW? No. I like the real world better. Anyway, if I got on a bus or train in RTW, I'd probably end up having to drive it.

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